Mystic shadow, bending near me,
Who art thou?
Whence come ye?
And—tell me—is it fair
Or is the truth bitter as eaten fire?
Fear not that I should quaver.
For I dare—I dare,
Then, tell me!
-Stephen Crane, 1905
What is Shadow? How does it appear in dreams? These questions puzzled me for many years. The raging teen, the woman in a wheelchair, the homeless guy in the basement and the timid girl wiping up crumbs at my feet; were they each a part of my shadow? And if so, how was I supposed to work with them? What did it mean to ‘integrate them’ as Jungian theory proposed? Reading what Carl Jung wrote about Shadow only added to my confusion.
In some passages, his description of Shadow is so broadly defined it becomes either meaningless or overwhelming:
Before unconscious contents have been differentiated, the shadow is in effect the whole of the unconscious. It is commonly personified in dreams by persons of the same sex as the dreamer. Shadow is the dark aspects of the personality…composed for the most part of repressed desires and uncivilized impulses, morally inferior motives, childish fantasies and resentments etc.- all those things about oneself one is not proud of… [CW9ii, par. 14] … but also displays a number of good qualities, such as normal instincts, appropriate reactions, realistic insights, creative impulses, etc. [Conclusion, CW 9ii, par. 423.]
In other writing, Jung portrays Shadow as a double, an alter-ego, much like Stephen Crane’s Mystic Shadow:
One has to become aware of its (Shadow’s) qualities and intentions…a long process of negotiation is unavoidable. This must lead to some kind of union, even though the union consists at first in an open conflict… it is a struggle that goes on until the opponents run out of breath. [Rex and Regina CW14 par. 14]
Listening to Jung in passages such as this, I am reminded of Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis, struggling to extract a blessing: But Jacob’s angel was fairly matched in size and strength, while the proportions of Shadow, swollen to include everything unconscious, are huge. No wonder Jung viewed the shadow as a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality. I believe the confusion stems from conflation of two metaphors – the shadow silhouette that follows us wherever we go, and that which is obscured in shadow – unknown. This conflation has resulted in important misunderstandings about which aspects of our unconscious are fundamental to who we are and which are symptoms of unresolved pain and trauma that can be healed.
Working with my own dreams, and those of my clients over the past 20 years, I have come to believe that Shadow is not a moral problem, but a compassion problem. The beating heart of shadow is not the ‘dark underside of the personality’ but the wounded self. And the work of integrating shadow is an embrace – not a negotiation or a fight.
Most of us have a difficult time accepting that we have wounds at all. As adults we hide behind a veneer of competence, avoid arenas that evoke any feelings of inadequacy and restrict our lives unnecessarily. The need to look away from our pain creates distortions in our perceptions, both of ourselves and the world.
Our dreams have the potential to help us heal. In our dreams, we may find ourselves alive without a heartbeat, with burns on our skin, pus coming out of our ear, unable to see, unable to speak. Sometimes the dreamer experiences these conditions first-hand, and sometimes the wounds are carried by other figures in our dreams: these figures frequently teach us how to live with our pain, to express our feelings and accept help. They help us recognize that we are not alone. These figures feel very real, they pulse with life, we feel them deeply when we allow ourselves to connect with them. Embracing these figures is the work of Integrating Shadow.
In Natural Dreamwork, we distinguish between the figures that carry our wounds, and figures of conditioning. Figures of conditioning highlight survival strategies: inflexible patterns of perception and behaviors that develop to help us survive in challenging circumstances. While these strategies once kept us safe, when continued they hinder our growth and healing. We find ourselves locked into rigid roles, unable to recognize possibilities for growth, while also carrying a great deal of anxiety that we are not ‘ok.’ Our wounds get cloaked in shame. Figures of the ‘wounded self’ remove the cloak so we can heal.
Figures of conditioning are qualitatively different from the figures of the wounded self: They exist to highlight a dynamic, show us stereotyped behaviors. They are ‘paper thin,’ without much life. Sometimes they are almost comic. These figures fade away as we embrace our difficulties. Figures of conditioning are not fundamental to who we are as people.
Here is an example:
‘Melissa’ is a woman in her 40’s, married with two college-age sons. She is very bright and articulate but struggles to find meaningful direction for her life. She suffers from intense self-doubt and is very critical of herself.
After working together for a year, she shared the following dreams.
A couple of months before the dreams, she had spoken to me about her insecurity picking out gifts for others. In her dream ‘Nadia’ fills this role:
Nadia asks if I got the crochet gift she gave me. I did and I say so and she says, “I thought maybe you weren’t here when it was delivered.” We’ve actually talked about the gift before so I’m surprised she needs to be told again that I got it. She’s holding it up now, “I hope you don’t notice the mistakes,” She’s pointing them out but what I’m noticing is the lovely details and crochet embellishments. It looks like something I’d like to make. Nina is wearing a blue crochet sweater and it’s hard to tell where the gift starts and the sweater ends. I say, “even the finest handcrafted things have small mistakes.” She says, “Oh well, I just wanted to make sure you got it. I thought you weren’t here when it was delivered.” I feel like she’s determined to stay stuck in the doubts and problems.
The dream highlights a pattern of behavior. ‘Nadia’ comes off as a caricature. The description of the dream figure’s insecurity is exaggerated to the point of comedy; the image of a string from the gift still attached to the one giving the gift is very funny. We had a good laugh together as Melissa shared this dream. She is on her way toward letting go of this pattern of anxiety, self-doubt and perfectionism that has plagued her. As she says in the dream, “even the finest handcrafted things have small mistakes.”
In the second dream we learn more about the root of Melissa’s conditioning. She dreams:
I’m in a bathroom with Nicky (a friend My mom once said was never going to be very pretty.) She’s crying. I’m standing behind her and can only see her grey polar fleece jacket that’s much like mine. It has a few flour smudges and strings from sewing on it. I can’t see her face in the mirror because her hair is hanging down covering it. she cries, “I always try to make my mom happy but no matter what I always disappoint her.” I turn her toward me and hug her. A powerful feeling of recognition runs through my body and it wakes me up.
‘Nicky’ feels real. We can see her, feel her, down to ‘flour smudges on her jacket.’ Her anguish is palpable, and she is able to express what Melissa has half-known but until this dream has been unable to express or fully accept: her struggle from early childhood to get approval and love from her mother. Melissa feels a powerful embodied recognition and wakes up. She embraces the wounded self, and with it integrates the wisdom and feeling this figure carries. ‘Nicky’ will stay with her, ‘Nadia’ will fade. This dream was a threshold for Melissa, one we will both remember for a long time.
As we connect with the wisdom and self-compassion of our wounded self, the rest of the ‘Shadow Work’ tends to follow in its course: we let go of outworn habits, feel freer to explore our feelings and develop capacities that have been overshadowed by anxiety and shame. Our shadow loses weight, becomes less burdened, and our lives enriched.
Keren Vishny originally trained as a physician, and practiced Internal Medicine for 10 years before retraining as a psychotherapist and NaturalDreamwork practitioner and teacher. Her exploration of her own dream has led to the re-emergence of her poet, in hibernation since age 14. She is affiliated with the CG Jung Center in Evanston, as well as the Marion Woodman Foundation.